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Cincinnati Zoo tax levy OK'd for ballot, but no increase

Posted at 1:08 PM, Feb 07, 2018

CINCINNATI -- Voters will get to decide on renewing a tax levy for the zoo this May, but an option to increase the levy won't be on the ballot.

The Hamilton County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to put the renewal on the ballot without an increase for inflation the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden had requested. The current zoo levy costs the owner of a $100,000 house $10 a year. The inflation bump would have added $3.50. 

"I believe we have to consider any request for new funding in the context of all of the other demands on our county's resources," Commissioner Denise Driehaus said in a written statement.

The tax levy generates $6.55 million for the zoo. But as the zoo's expenses have grown, that's represented a smaller and smaller piece of their total budget, according to Zoo Director Thane Maynard. The levy revenue has gone down 10 percent over the past 10 years while expenses have gone up 54 percent, according to the zoo. The levy once covered 41 percent of the zoo's budget. Now it only amounts to 17 percent.

"It's disappointing because we weren't asking for as big an increase as other groups are," Maynard said. 

However, the Hamilton County Tax Levy Review Committee recommended against an increase. Consultants hired by the county also found "a levy increase is not warranted." And unlike other public agencies that receive money from county tax levies, the zoo can raise its own money, Driehaus noted. 

Zoo officials now have decisions to make on how to get the renewal levy passed and how to prioritize spending going forward.

"The levy funds basic zoo needs -- that's the care of animals, care of the gardens and maintenance," Maynard said. "Obviously, care of the animals and care of the gardens take priority and we'll continue to do a world-class job. In terms of maintenance -- long-term maintenance -- if you came to the zoo today, you'd see $5 million worth of infrastructure underway, new electrical pipes underground and all sorts of things. We're an old campus -- we're almost 150 years old -- so we'll have to work harder than ever to prioritize what those projects are and what is the pace we can get them done."

The zoo plans to study its prices for admissions and memberships to make sure they're at the right level to give everyone a chance to come out.